Open Letter to Netflix RE: Changing Up Your Space

by Dee Emm Elms

“This is the beginning.  This is the day.  You are watching the unfolding of one of history’s great adventures.”

Those are the first lines spoken in “The Reluctant Stowaway,” the pilot episode of the original Lost in Space television series, which centers around the courageous Robinsons.  They’re a family of space pioneers who get hopelessly lost … in space.  And, thanks to syndication and Blu-Ray, they’ve been on a seemingly-endless mission trying to get back to Earth ever since.

The mission has proved to be endless for us fans: comic books, novels, aborted TV movies and even a big-screen theatrical feature have continued or reimagined the Robinsons’ story.

Word’s gotten out that you’re doing your own version of Lost in Space.  And I’m here, addressing you, Netflix, as a fan, hopeful that you’ll make it as fun and memorable as the original with a cast of characters played by actors every bit as talented and entertaining. But the world has changed a lot since Lost in Space aired its first episode back in 1965 about the then-future world of 1997, when the original show takes place.

For one, the futuristic technology of the original series isn’t so futuristic now.  The future of space exploration is moving into the private sector!  People actually own robots!  Cloning technology is real!  The communicators of Star Trek have become cell phones!  And American entertainment has evolved in a lot of ways, too.  Too many channels to try to count!  Home entertainment systems that can rival theaters!

And yet, some things haven’t evolved as quickly, or have even in some cases gone in the opposite direction.  Like being able to look at how people are represented in mainstream American entertainment and see diverse people looking back.

Which is precisely why I’m asking you to step up by making the Robinsons of your Lost in Space series a black family.

I’m a serious, die-hard fan of the original Lost in Space, and Penny Robinson is one of my lifelong heroes.  I used to want to be her, every time I watched.   And that version of the show isn’t going anywhere.

But you’re making a new Lost in Space, Netflix.  And when you make something new, you have opportunities.  By that, I mean you have a chance to open up your own new frontier by reimagining the Robinsons to as a family of pioneering explorers — just like they’ve always been —  but at the same time to also depict them in a way that reflects the truth of our reality.  Black people are part of the real-world American space program, but you wouldn’t know it from most American science fiction.

So let the Robinsons represent the dreams and aspirations of us all, but let them also show a black family exploring the stars.  By doing so, you’ll additionally be giving representation to real people who are far too often deeply-underrepresented in popular American science fiction; despite claims of progress, American genre television still opens its arms widest toward an audience of white hetero cis men.  And those men are quick to bro-hug right back and let everyone else miss out.  And that relationship is hurting science fiction and fantasy.  Big-time.  Because it isn’t symbiotic.  It’s parasitic.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  And there are trends that anyone who studies science fiction can see coming.  Disney Junior’s Miles from Tomorrowland is an excellent kids’ science fiction series that features a mixed-race main character who has a white parent and a parent who is Chinese, and kids across America are dressing up as Finn from The Force Awakens.  There’s a whole generation of viewers – the kind of viewers Netflix wants to partake of their programming – who are growing up without needing that white-on-white dudebro-hug.  And who are expecting and often outright demanding more from their entertainment.

A science fiction show focusing directly on a black family of protagonists would be wholly unique right now for mainstream American entertainment, and that’s the kind of thing that gets positive social media attention.  There’s a reason Star Trek fans are still to this day talking fondly about the Sisko family from DEEP SPACE NINE.  They still resonate.  They mattered to science fiction when they were on, and they still matter.  Don’t believe me?  Check out social media, like I’m saying.  You’ll see.

And, yes, social media works both ways, and there will inevitably be some people who will insist you’re doing something wrong, if you make the Robinsons black.  They complain about any change to any character’s race.  They’re vociferous about it, and they shout their opinions loud, too.  But they are actually a new minority: the hateful outlier who works as hard as he can to be as loud as he can to create an artificial synthetic buzz that happens organically when you have a diverse audience and diverse portrayals.

And, yeah, those outliers will shout.  “Changing a character’s race is wrong!” they’ll yell.  Then, they’ll trot out their usual examples.  “What if we tried to make a white Blade or Molly Watts? ” they’ll cry.

But regarding Blade and Molly being black … that’s an essential element to both of those characters.  The roles they play in society as black people  in the situations and stories they inhabit are dramatically affected in fundamental ways by their race.  Their stories focus on the idea of what’s Us and what’s Them.   How we define “human” and “nonhuman” — and the hoops society demands people to jump through to be accepted as One Of Us.  That’s profoundly connected to our history of discrimination in America.   And these charactes are in many ways metaphors for that.  And metaphors are important.  Shallow science-fiction fans don’t like to admit it, but those metaphors matter far more than spaceships or laser swords.    How other characters view, react to and treat Blade or Molly are affected and informed in ways that are about race and both directly and indirectly address race in many different ways.  The details of the plots they follow are affected.  Changing their race would be changing the core elements that represent what the characters themselves represent.  They’re integral.   You couldn’t tell Molly or Blade’s stories without their race coming into play in the telling, if you’re being true to the narratives for those characters and the worlds they’re using to represent the issues and problems facing us here in reality.

But that’s not the case for a new family of Robinsons.  Nothing about the Robinsons being white is essential to their stories.  The Robinsons are space explorers who travel across the stars and meet strange and interesting aliens and have adventures.  You could easily tell the story of the Robinsons without invoking race, yes — but why should you?  Racial issues are human issues — affecting some of the most important crises in our real-world modern society.   And isn’t the purpose of science-fiction to talk about real human issues?

Beyond that, consider how the future looks in most science-fiction.  It’s overwhelmingly portrayed as white.  But you can change that.  Why not show black children that they can exist in a science-fiction future?  Why not show a universe where first contact with aliens doesn’t have to mean white contac being depicted as the default?  Why not embrace our true reality and let a family of black performers portray the Robinsons as they represent Earth to galaxies of aliens?  Why not let their race be part of the story?  Part of the discussion about the story?

So what do you say, Netflix?  How about changing up the Space a little bit?  How about reaching out and making something that’ll shake the world of science fiction fandom from the top of the Jupiter 2’s roof all the way down to the treads on Robot B-9?

You have a chance to unfold a great, new adventure for science fiction.  A new start for what science fiction can look like and can mean for people.

Let this be the beginning.

Let this be the day.

Dee Emm Elms is a writer focused on a wide range of topics ranging from horror to intersectional feminism, from transgender rights advocacy to Care Bears and Ninja Turtles. Dee is currently releasing in serialized form an online horror novel for adults called SIDLINGS.

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